Tule Lake concentration camp was set up in northern California on Modoc Indian land in April 1942, and in the summer of 1943, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) converted Tule Lake into a maximum-security camp for “disloyals.” The camp in the spring of 1944 held over 18,000 Japanese Americans behind a manproof, six-foot high chain link fence topped with barbed wire spiked with guard towers at intervals along the perimeter manned by soldiers with machine guns. During the riot in 1943, an enhanced military presence with eight tanks occupied the camp.
The Tule Lake riot really began in 1942 with the forcible removal and detention of Japanese Americans, which was an unjust act that required redress. That was the essential charge of Japanese Americans throughout the war. But the immediate cause was the visit of the WRA's director, Dillon Myer, to the Tule Lake camp on November 1, 1943. Myer's visit prompted a Japanese American delegation to demand a meeting with him to outline their grievances, including racism among the WRA staff, inadequate food, and overcrowding. More fundamentally, a leader said, Japanese Americans asked that they “be treated humanely.”
Some of the white, WRA administrators feared for their safety having seen a crowd of thousands of Japanese Americans pressing around the building in which Myer and the others met. The next day, November 2, those staff members visited
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the head of the military police responsible for Tule Lake concentration camp, Lt. Col Verne Austin, and asked him to intervene and guarantee their safety. Austin commanded a battalion of about 1,200 soldiers. Antagonism rose between WRA administrators and their Japanese American charges, and after a minor scuffle between those elements, the camp's director called in the military.
Tanks rolled into the concentration camp on November 4, and the army declared military rule and its determination to stamp out the protest by removing troublemakers. Austin imposed a 6 A.M. to 7 P.M. curfew and arbitrarily arrested and detained Japanese Americans without charges or hearings. He disbanded a community group, the Daihyo Sha Kai, and apprehended its members, required identification badges to be worn by everyone 12 years and older, and mounted a comprehensive sweep of the entire camp to uncover and take into custody agitators and confiscate weapons. On November 26, three groups of about 150 men, each carrying full field equipment and a gas mask and all officers bearing side arms, clubs, and gas grenades, marched through the camp to carry out their commander's orders.
In late November, the army erected a stockade surrounded by barbed-wire fence and guard towers, building in effect, a prison within the concentration camp to segregate the apprehended men from the rest of the camp. And within the stockade, the army built a box called the “bull pen” in which to punish anyone it chose. The bunks in the stockade sat on bare ground, which was frozen in the winter, and being confined there was a life and death struggle. The men received no extra clothing or blankets despite temperatures that fell below freezing. Over 150 men were held in the stockade.
Beatings were common under martial law to punish and extract information. A former security officer recalled with delight the night of November 4 when the tanks rumbled into Tule Lake. He described the interrogation room where fists and baseball bats were preferred over conversation. “None of the three Japs were unconscious but all three were groggy from the blows they received, especially the one … hit with the baseball bat,” the officer began. When one of them refused to do as ordered, he said, “I knocked my Jap down with my fist. He stayed down but was not unconscious. [Q] hit his Jap over the head with the baseball bat …” That night in all, 18 Japanese Americans were “severely beaten with baseball bats,” according to a deposition, and some required “hospitalization for several months and the mentality of one was impaired permanently as the result of the beating he had received” (Drinnon, 142–43).
On January 1944, the army conducted an election to decide on the status of the Daihyo Sha Kai, which was an elected, representative body. The question put to Japanese Americans was whether to retain the Daihyo Sha Kai, most of whose members were in the stockade, or to reject them and, in effect, to accept the army's position. The military's tally was 4,893 against the Daihyo Sha Kai, 4,120 for the Daihyo Sha Kai, and 228 undecided. Amidst claims of voting irregularities, the army accepted their official count, and with that vindication, on January 15, 1944, the military returned Tule Lake to the WRA, except the stockade, which it controlled until May of that year. The WRA closed the stockade in August 1944.
The Tule Lake riot, accordingly, was not really a riot but a mass protest movement on the part of Japanese Americans in that concentration camp. Their essential demand was for human dignity within the parameters of the camp and its racism and inhumanity. Those demands were met with military repression and rule, which prompted terror and physical violence to stamp out the movement and cause.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.